God save the Queen, says the old British anthem. In their hearts, the Cuban authorities would like that wish to extend to their delegation at the 2012 London Games, because its outlook is gloomy.
The Olympics, which begin Friday, will be a turning point for Cuban sport. Either a recovery takes place and Cuba returns to the summit of Latin American sports or the the country continues the slide it began in Beijing four years ago.
“I believe that, for the first time, there is some element of pessimism, because we can’t make predictions with the certainty that we’ll win medals in this or other event,” said a sportswriter in Cuba who requested anonymity. ”Cuba can win three, four, even five gold medals, or it can go home without any medals of that color. Everything is looking darker.”
At Beijing in 2008, Cuba surrendered its post as the top gold medal-winner in the region to Brazil, a nation that is injecting millions of dollars into its sports programs in an effort to shine when it hosts the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro.
Cuba finished 28th in China with 2 golds, 11 silvers and 11 bronzes, far below its achievements in Athens in 2004 of nine golds, seven silvers and 11 bronzes.
Dayron Robles took first place in the 110-meter hurdles and Mijaín López did likewise in Greco-Roman wrestling in Beijing, but both men have been losing in world tournaments.
The Cuban national team has been marred by economic limitations that affect the training of athletes who are unable to compete consistently with their rivals. This year, Cuba will send 110 athletes to London — down from 165 in Beijing four years earlier.
“The delegation is smaller, no doubt because of financial problems, but also because of an important fact: the absence of collective sports,” said Pérez de la Ve, a sportswriter who arrived in Miami from Cuban a few months ago.
“That’s a tough blow, because it directly reflects the problems that afflict the country’s sports system.”
Not counting Cuba’s Olympic boycotts in 1984 and 1988, Cuba is well-represented in team sports.
Not this year.
Women’s volleyball failed to qualify for the Olympics for the first time since 1972. Basketball, fencing, gymnastics and handball teams suffered similar fates.
In addition, baseball is no longer an Olympic sport. Even if it were, Cuba would not be guaranteed a gold medal, as happened in Beijing.
Cuba is placing its medal hopes on combat sports — especially taekwondo, judo and especially boxing.
The once-feared team has been reduced by the defection of its fighters who are dispersed throughout the world, mostly in Miami.
In the latest world championship, the island secured only two titles: featherweight Lázaro Álvarez and light heavyweight Julio Cesar la Cruz, but it’s not sending a full team to London. It didn’t classify in two divisions and could reenact the Beijing fiasco, when no Cuban won gold.
“Cuba continues to have a lot of talent, but theirs is not the deep team they had in Athens or Barcelona,” said professor and trainer Roberto Quesada, a boxing scholar who lives in Miami. “Many of the champions who should defend their crowns or reach for new trophies are in Miami or Europe. Defections have damaged men’s volleyball and baseball, but have scuttled boxing."
Defections and the poor economy could deal a death blow to a sports machine that suddenly becomes too costly for a system of schools and high-performance centers.
The London Games could enter history as the Olympics that marked a rebirth of Cuban sports or the moment when sports ceased to be relevant.
If the latter happens, may God save not only the Queen but also the Cuban athletes.